Why Nigeria struggles to win its security battle


This year, Nigerian airline Aero Contractors announced a new, twice-daily shuttle service between the capital Abuja and Kaduna, a northern city just 180km away. 

Increased air connectivity is often a positive sign for a developing country — a signal of growing expendable income and business activity. But Aero’s move was prompted by the recognition that the Abuja-Kaduna highway, one of the most important roads in Africa’s most populous country, is too dangerous to traverse by car.

The company’s chairman told local media he launched the route in response to “security fears” and overwhelming demand for the rail service between the cities, which has also been attacked by bandits, who sometimes operate as opportunists in small groups and sometimes as part of organised gangs. 

“The government [is] almost entirely ceding this important . . . route to bandits and kidnapping gangs,” SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based consultancy, said in a recent research note. “This is clear from the emphasis placed on rail travel by commuters and the government, and the hints of a soon-to-be-launched air shuttle between Abuja and Kaduna.”

8,000 Number of deaths since 2011

The kidnappings, hijackings and bandit attacks that plague the highway are emblematic of insecurity in every corner of Nigeria. Five years after President Muhammadu Buhari first ran on a national security platform, AK-47 wielding, motorcycle-driving gangs of men set up fake checkpoints on highways to kidnap busloads of people, or ransack villages and murder civilians.

The violence has killed more than 8,000 people since 2011, and displaced more than 200,000 in the north-west, the region at the heart of the bandit crisis, according to the International Crisis Group. There have been nearly as many reported deaths in the four main northwestern states so far this year — including Mr Buhari’s home state of Katsina, where fatalities doubled from last year — as there were in war-torn Borno, where Boko Haram continues its decade-long insurgency.

A Boko Haram faction leader speaks in front of guards in an undisclosed location in Nigeria in 2018 © REUTERS

But it is not just criminals wreaking havoc. This month, in the heart of Lagos, state security services fired on peaceful protesters who were demonstrating against police brutality, killing at least 10, according to Amnesty International. The crackdown brought international condemnation from the UN and US presidential candidate Joe Biden.

After the shooting, armed gangs roamed the streets of Lagos, burning buildings including police stations and the high court and looting stores. The protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) federal police unit erupted in early October after gruesome videos of officers shooting, assaulting and killing Nigerian civilians spread across social media under the hashtag #EndSARS.

The government disbanded Sars and pledged reforms, including psychological evaluation for officers and raising their meagre wages so they were less likely to resort to extortion. But the protests continued, and spread across the country, because Nigerians have been promised such reforms before, says Tanwa Ashiru, founder of Lagos-based risk consultancy Bulwark Intelligence.

“The government promises to tackle the menace, but speaks about the issue while it is trending,” says Ms Ashiru. “Once the hashtag is no longer trending, things slip back to their status quo.”

#EndSARS protesters demonstrate in Lagos against police brutality © Temilade Adelaja, for the Financial Times

After the crackdown on protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos and the subsequent unrest, the city became another place the government has been unable to keep safe, despite repeated pledges to address insecurity. It has deployed the army to nearly all of Nigeria’s 36 states and launched numerous anti-bandit operations with various branches of the national police force.

But it has failed to stop the violence, says Ose Anenih, of Abuja-based Eagle Badger Consulting, a political communications research company.

“Reports of kidnappings by bandits and deadly attacks by Boko Haram have become so commonplace and mundane that they no longer make the front pages of newspapers,” says Mr Anenih, a critic of the president, who goes on to say: “What did make headlines was when residents of President Buhari’s home state of Katsina, fiercely loyal to him, took to the streets to protest [against] rising insecurity.”

A spokesman for Mr Buhari did not respond to a request for comment.

Critics argue that the administration’s militarised approach, where police and soldiers are underfunded and under-equipped, lacks a commensurate development agenda to help tackle the deficits — in education, health and jobs — that are driving some of the insecurity.

27.1% Unemployment rate in Nigeria

Nigeria has just entered its second recession in five years. Inflation and food prices are rising and foreign investment is falling. The latest unemployment figures show 27.1 per cent of Nigerians are unemployed and another 28.6 per cent are underemployed.

Many people are desperate enough to turn to banditry, a catch-all term that covers every manner of crime including kidnapping.

Some northern state governors have tried to broker peace with bandit groups, through amnesty programmes, and promises of development in exchange for peace.

But those efforts have largely failed, in part because development takes time and governors cannot keep all their promises. The attacks continue in states that have offered amnesty, such as Katsina, and those that have not, in the mostly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south, on ordinary Nigerians and their leaders, including imams, priests and politicians.

Camps for displaced people near Pulka
Camps for displaced people near Pulka © Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images

Banditry perpetrated by organised crime syndicates is compounded by ethno-religious conflict, where nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers battle over increasingly scarce resources as the population booms. ICG reports that jihadist groups have begun to take advantage of the strife, raising “fears that the region could soon become a land bridge connecting Islamic insurgencies in the central Sahel with the decade-old insurgency” of Boko Haram.

Five years after Mr Buhari said Nigeria had “technically won the war”, Boko Haram continues to attack civilians and the under-equipped military.

Last month, the convoy of Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno — the state at the heart of the insurgency — was attacked twice, both on the way to and from a remote town where Mr Zulum had welcomed displaced people back to their homes, after they had spent years living in camps. At least 30 people were killed.

Analysts say Borno, a state twice the size of Belgium, is largely ungoverned, with the government having mostly retreated to the capital Maiduguri.

“Five years into the current presidency, there are no fresh ideas and no strategies in place to methodically tackle insecurity,” says Ms Ashiru.



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